International Tribunal to examine state atrocities in Colombia

The Colombian state’s historic culpability in atrocities against its citizens will come under new scrutiny with a visit to the country by the People’s Permanent Tribunal (PPT), the international organ founded to reach judgements on human rights abuses across the globe. A delegation of human rights experts, lawyers and investigators will meet with representatives of Colombian political parties and social organisations to receive testimonies about state crimes, including genocide, attacks on peace and impunity, whether in historic or contemporary contexts.

Among the PPT officials who will visit Colombia are former UN human rights rapporteur Michael Forst, whose 2020 report on human rights abuses in Colombia documented alarming cases of violations committed by state agents; UN investigator and academic Mireille Fanon; Italian human rights judge and deacon Luigi Ferrajoli; Nicaraguan lawyer and indigenous rights activist Lottie Cunningham Wren; and Monsignor Raúl Vera of Mexico. In total, 13 investigators will be present in the Tribunal.

The PPT was founded in 1979 and is based in Bologna, Italy. It emerged from philosopher Bertrand Russell’s tribunals on atrocities committed by the US in Vietnam and Latin American military dictatorships against their own people during the 1970s. These tribunals became a permanent organ, the PPT, which aimed to address the vacuum of institutional accountability around human rights abuses. Following a petition received in April 2020, this will be its third visit to Colombia. Several social and human rights organisations will meet with the Tribunal, including the National Movement for Victims of State Crimes (MOVICE) and the CAJAR human rights lawyers collective, as well as trade union bodies such as the CUT federation and the USO oil workers union.

19 opposition congress members have called on the government of President Iván Duque to participate in the Tribunal’s sessions in order to properly address state crimes and ‘assume responsibility before the national and international community for the seriousness of the denounced events.’ The government has not clarified to what extent, if any, it will engage with the Tribunal. Once the Tribunal reaches a judgement, it will present its findings to the UN’s Commission on Human Rights, the European Union and the International Criminal Court.

The Tribunal will receive testimonies in three main areas. First is violence against opposition political parties, particularly those on the left such as the Communist Party, the National Union of Opposition, the Popular Front, the Patriotic Union (which saw around 5,000 members and supporters murdered in the 1980s and 1990s) and the FARC political party, now renamed Comunes, which was founded under the terms of the 2016 agreement.

Second, the Tribunal will receive information on anti-trade union violence, with the ENS national trade union organisation registering 3,270 murders of trade unionists between 1971 and mid-2020, as well as more than 7,000 threats and almost 2,000 cases of forced displacement. The third area focuses on historic violence, such as the 1928 massacre of hundreds of banana workers and the 1963 Santa Barbara massacre, in which the army killed twelve striking workers at a cement factory.

It is hoped that the Tribunal’s conclusions will correspond with findings of Colombia’s transitional justice mechanisms, particularly the Truth Commission and Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), to strengthen human rights in the country and ensure non-repetition of state and other forms of violence. Despite the 2016 peace agreement, many regions of Colombia are impacted by ongoing human rights violations, with national organisations registering more than 1,100 social activists and more than 250 FARC former combatants killed since the agreement was signed.